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Nina Totenberg looks back on her decades-long friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A talk with Nina Totenberg, NPR’s longtime legal affairs correspondent, covering the Supreme Court. Her new book Dinners with Ruth, is about her long friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which began before Ginsburg became a Supreme Court justice.


Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 2022: Interview with Nina Totenberg; Review of Bliss Montage



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a famous Supreme Court justice and before Nina Totenberg was a well-known, award-winning NPR legal affairs correspondent covering the Supreme Court, they became friends. They met in the early '70s, when Totenberg interviewed Ginsburg for a story about a Supreme Court decision pertaining to women's rights. Ginsburg was still teaching at Rutgers University, and the ACLU had asked her to write the brief. The two women bonded over law, but Totenberg says, as friends, they tried to avoid subjects that crossed over into their professional relationship. They helped each other through crises in their lives, like the illnesses and deaths of Ginsburg's husband and Totenberg's first husband. One of the ways Totenberg helped Ginsburg after Ginsburg became a widow and during the COVID lockdown, when Ginsburg was in poor health, was to invite Ginsburg over for dinners.

Nina Totenberg has written a book about their friendship called "Dinners With Ruth." It's also a memoir about Totenberg's life and about her friendship with NPR's Cokie Roberts, who reported on Congress, and Linda Wertheimer, who covered politics. Those three women, along with Susan Stamberg, who co-anchored All Things Considered, became known as the founding mothers of NPR.

Nina Totenberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the book. I really enjoyed it.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

GROSS: I want to start with Roe. You write about how Justice Ginsburg didn't think that Roe was the best case to guarantee a constitutional right to abortion. She didn't think basing Roe on the right to privacy would make for the sturdiest precedent. And she also wished that the change was more incremental. And she would have preferred a case that she had argued about a year before Roe. She wished that that had been the test case. What was that case? And explain why she thought it was a better test case.

TOTENBERG: She represented a woman named Susan Struck, who was a captain in the Air Force and who got pregnant. And under the rules in the military, as they then existed, she either had to have an abortion or be discharged. And she wanted to stay in the military. And she arranged to have the child adopted by people she knew. And Justice Ginsburg - this is sort of the flip side of the coin. Justice Ginsburg's view was that women have a right to their own personal autonomy to what happens to their body, and that includes childbearing.

And so she appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. And the court agreed to hear the case the same year as Roe. But the government, the solicitor general, realized it was likely going to lose this case, and it caved. It changed the rule. And therefore, there really was no case and controversy left, as they say, which was a - I wouldn't say broke her heart, but she thought it was a much better case and that it illustrated the dilemma of interfering with personal autonomy much better than Roe.

GROSS: 'Cause in this case, she was defending a woman's right not to have an abortion.

TOTENBERG: Not to have an abortion, exactly.

GROSS: So how can anti-abortion people argue with that? So she was coming at it from both sides. But it would guarantee a woman's right to abortion by guaranteeing a woman's right not to have an abortion. So it was a kind of brilliant case in that respect.

TOTENBERG: This was a very, what I call, Ruthian (ph) approach. She often represented people who illustrated the flip side, men who wanted the same rights that women did, economic rights that - and a law that discriminated, in one case, for example, against a man who wanted a tax deduction because he took care of his elderly mother. And if he'd been a single woman, he would have been allowed the deduction. But because he was a man, he wasn't. So it's a very classic Ruthian, as I call it, approach.

GROSS: So if the Defense Department hadn't changed its policy on abortion and if the government didn't, therefore, withdraw the case, do you think that the case that Ginsburg was arguing would have been the test case before the Supreme Court?

TOTENBERG: Oh, I think it would have been with Roe. But it would have forced the court to consider different approaches, different standards for a woman's right to choose. And whether that right was the woman's entirely, whether it was a woman in consultation with her doctor, it just - it would have been a very different case. And I think that the court might have written something somewhat different than Roe. It might have bought her argument more than the very specific trimester framework. It's hard to know what would have happened, but it certainly would have offered the court a different approach and a different way of thinking about a woman's right to determine whether or not she'll carry a pregnancy to term.

GROSS: You met her while you were reporting on a case that she'd written the brief for that determined that the 14th Amendment of equal protection under the law applied to women. And this was a law that was passed after the Civil War to ensure that formerly enslaved people and other Black people in America had equal protection under the law. Were you surprised? I mean, you were surprised to see the 14th Amendment applied to women.


GROSS: We're kind of used to that now. Why - what was so surprising about it?

TOTENBERG: Well, you remember - I have to remember that I was a newbie. I didn't know anything. So I read quite literally. And I couldn't - I didn't understand exactly what you just said. How could this apply to women when women didn't even have the vote when the 14th Amendment was enacted as an amendment to the Constitution? So I called her up, and I put my question to her. And I got about an hourlong lecture/conversation in which I - you know, back and forth, where - the bottom line was that - as she later put it in an interview with me - that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution guarantees equal protection of the law to all persons. And women are persons.

GROSS: Did that change your understanding of women's rights?

TOTENBERG: Listen, this happened in 1971, and we didn't have much in the way of rights. We technically had a civil rights law that included women almost as a joke so the - that the civil rights law that protects people in the workplace from discrimination applies to gender. But that was added as a poison pill by some members of the House or Senate. And it didn't work. So then it was - but, you know, people still operated in a way that today is almost unthinkable. And, you know, I was flatly told, we don't hire women, or we don't hire women for the night desk or we already have our woman. So it's hard to go back there and sort of remember what it was like, which is, frankly, quite irritating to women of my generation. We're very glad it isn't like that anymore, but it's not that long ago. And I want young women to understand that.

GROSS: And it's not like you thought that you could sue when you were declined a position. Or...

TOTENBERG: No, you could sue. You could sue, but you'd probably never work again in the business.

GROSS: Right. And when you were...

TOTENBERG: There were...

GROSS: When you were sexually harassed and fired after that, there was no - was there anyone to go to?

TOTENBERG: No. No. There was no HR department with a bunch of rules about sexual harassment. There just wasn't a place to go. You just sucked it up.

GROSS: You became friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg before she was a Supreme Court justice. Did the friendship change when she became a justice? And did it change even more when she became an icon at around age 80?

TOTENBERG: I would say the - at the moment where my friendship with Justice Ginsburg changed was earlier. It's when she moved to Washington to serve on the D.C. Court of Appeals. Up until then, she was in New York. So I just didn't see her that often. But once she moved to Washington, we increasingly became personal friends. And after my late husband died - our husbands would cook together. You know, one of them would - Marty would bring dessert and one of his famous baguettes. One of his favorites was lime souffle. But he made the best chocolate cake I've...

GROSS: Marty was Ginsburg's husband.

TOTENBERG: Yes. But he made the best chocolate cake I've ever eaten (laughter).

GROSS: People don't know - or at least I didn't know - how sick Ginsburg was, beyond what she revealed. But she had a lot more medical problems than certainly I knew about. Can you talk about the end of her life and how much pain she was in while sitting on the bench?

TOTENBERG: Well, oddly enough, one of the things that was the most painful is that - I don't know when - a couple of years before she died, she got shingles. And in typical Ruth fashion, she just ignored it. She thought it was some little rash, and she should just tough her way through it. And after about two weeks, she went to the doctor at the Capitol who said, you've got shingles, and prescribed whatever you prescribe for shingles. But my husband was in a state about it because he worried that because it had gone on so long and because she was - had other challenges, that she would never get rid of it entirely. And that's what happened. The blisters went away, but the pain did not.

And my husband and her doctor tried everything they could think of to relieve the pain, and the only thing that worked was a lidocaine patch, which you can't have on more than 12 hours a day. So she had to pick which 12 hours. Did she want to sleep? Or did she want to be comfortable on the bench? And the answer was she wanted to sleep.

GROSS: So I should mention that David is your second husband, who you married after the death of your first husband, and he is a surgeon. So he became very close to Ginsburg and advised her on health matters and kept a lot of that confidential, even to you.


GROSS: Yeah. So you not only were friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg; you were friends on a lesser level with Justice Scalia. And you invited him for dinners - not as much as Ruth Bader Ginsburg - and other justices, too. And after the Heller case that expanded the rights of gun owners...

TOTENBERG: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Your husband, David, put a squirt gun with the silverware on the table. What was the point of that? Was that supposed to just be a joke? Or was that supposed to be, like, a critique?

TOTENBERG: No, it was a friendly joke-slash-critique because David is a trauma surgeon. He deals with people who are shot all the time. And he has views on gun control that did not comport with Nino's, Justice Scalia's. And so it just - it was absolutely accidental that the decision came out, and we had a long-standing dinner date at our house that weekend. And so David bought little squirt guns, and he put them in every soup bow. And then the opinion said that you needed a gun in your home if you wanted one for self-defense. After all, you can hold the gun on a burglar with one hand and dial 911 with the other. So as we sat down, with great hilarity, he took out from underneath the table a huge Super Soaker, and he said, and I can still dial 911 with my squirt gun (laughter). And he kept the gun. Needless to say, there was no squirting.

But I sent home all of the little ones with his - with Scalia's wife, Maureen, a wonderful lady. And she wrote me a thank-you note that said that the grandchildren are outside playing with the squirt guns and himself was in the basement cleaning his real ones. So...


GROSS: Let's talk about your life. And I want to start with your father, Roman Totenberg. And there's a great story you tell in your book about how he learned to play violin.

TOTENBERG: Oh, yeah (laughter). So he's Polish, born in Poland. And we're talking here 1918, right? And his father went to Russia with the family for an engineering job there. And his mother also had a job. And somebody agreed to take his sister during the day, watch her. But whoever that was didn't like little boys. And the guy who lived downstairs said, I'll watch him. And he was the concertmaster of the Moscow Opera Orchestra, and because he didn't know what else to do with this 5-year-old kid, he taught him to play the violin - 5 or 6 years old. And so very soon he started taking my father with him when he had to go places, and he would play the more complicated parts, and my father would play the simpler parts. But he was a phenom. My father was a phenom. He was a child prodigy. And that was clear very quickly.

And the place that he used to go to play all the time was these big communist meetings, Bolshevik meetings, because it was the time of the revolution. And he would be introduced, and somebody would say, and now Comrade Totenberg is going to play for you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: And out would come this little 7- or 8-year-old boy. And the whole place, hundreds and hundreds of people, would just break up laughing. But he was a fabulous musician even then. And he would be paid in bread and butter and sugar. And there was a famine at the time, and that was something nobody else could give the family. So in one interview that I quoted him in my book, I quoted him as saying, "that's when I realized the true value of art, what it means to people."

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal correspondent. Her new book is called "Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir On The Power Of Friendships." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. Her new memoir is called "Dinners With Ruth." Her late father was the violin virtuoso Roman Totenberg, who was born in 1911. When we left off, we were talking about how he became a child prodigy after his family moved from Poland to Russia. They returned to Poland before Hitler came to power.

You know, your father was a famous violinist. He escaped the Nazis later by coming to America on an artist visa.

TOTENBERG: Yeah, there's an interesting story, which I'm not sure I tell in the book. He had an artist visa to come in 1937, I think. And he was - he got rave reviews everywhere, The New York Times, The Washington Post. He made his debut playing the Beethoven "Violin Concerto." I think he was 23 years old. He came over in a boat. And he made his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra. And he was such a sensation that he was invited to play at the White House. And this was a very fancy event. And he wasn't the only artist, except he wasn't that famous yet, everybody else was.

And the White House, he said, was not the White House of today. It was kind of broken down. And the artists were all looking for where could they change their clothes. And he plays. And the vice president, John Nance Garner, was sitting in the front row with a spittoon and his shoes off and a hole in his sock. And afterwards, the artists were invited to the residence residential quarters. And Mrs. Roosevelt served them dinner. And he had been in Italy just three weeks or four weeks earlier playing for the king of Italy and had to back out of the concert hall and had had to have the most formal attire of everything. You're not supposed to turn your back on the king or - and here was the first lady of the United States handing him his dinner on a plate. And he thought to himself, this is the country for me.

GROSS: Were having a lot of dinners at your home and inviting justices and other powerful people to your home, were they a carryover in a way of what your parents did with their artist friends? You know, your father was a famous violinist and knew a lot of people in the music and arts world, and they would often come over for dinner. So is that just a part of the world that you grew up in, of dinner parties?

TOTENBERG: I suppose in some sense it is. But I have always thought that the best way to cover a person who's significant in the beat you cover is to try to get to know them and to have some sense of who they are and what makes them tick. And you start out that way, and if they're nice people - and most of them are - they become a friend after a while.

GROSS: But is it hard to report on friends? Like, for instance, I'm an interviewer. I'm not a reporter. But if a friend of mine has a book and/or film or whatever, and for some reason we decline to do the interview, I feel so bad. And it just kind of eats at me. But I always feel like I have to separate the show decisions from the friendship. But it just - it makes it hard. So do you feel like it always paid off or are there times it made it hard for you to...

TOTENBERG: Other times it made it hard. There was one occasion in which, after Justice Ginsburg had criticized then-candidate Trump that she didn't want me to ask her about it. We again had a long-scheduled interview. And I just said, I'm sorry, Ruth, I can't do that. That's my job. And she did understand that. I said, you can ream me out in the interview if you want. And she did. She reamed me out.


TOTENBERG: So that's just the - that's the price of admission. You really have to have a very firm line. And sometimes it's not comfortable, but it's your job. And I ultimately think that the kinds of people who sit on the Supreme Court understand that. They may not like it, just the way I don't like it when somebody writes something critical about me. That just goes with the territory.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nina Totenberg, NPR's legal correspondent. Her new book is called "Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir On The Powers Of Friendships." And it's about her friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It's also a memoir about Nina's life. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal correspondent who has covered the Supreme Court since 1969 and joined NPR in 1975. Her new book, "Dinners With Ruth," is about her long friendship with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The book is also a memoir about Nina Totenberg's life.

You didn't finish college, which really surprised me. You knew you wanted to be a journalist ever since you were 17 and got an internship with a Democratic study group on Capitol Hill. When you decided to drop out of college after three years, what did your parents have to say?

TOTENBERG: Well, my mother actually encouraged me. I mean, I did fine. I did OK. But I wasn't, you know...

GROSS: In college, you did.

TOTENBERG: In college.

GROSS: OK, yeah.

TOTENBERG: I wasn't going to be magna or summa. And my mother looked at my grades, and she said, you know, you don't have to stay there if you don't want to. And I thought, OK. I'm leaving (laughter). And she never took it back. She did not take it back.

GROSS: Do you ever feel like you were not hired because you didn't have a degree?

TOTENBERG: No, actually. I was not hired because I was a woman at the time.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. A woman without a degree.

TOTENBERG: Yeah, but if I'd had a doctorate, they wouldn't have hired me. If I had - if I had been a summa in history, they wouldn't have hired me. It was really hard to get a job.

GROSS: Early in your career before joining NPR when you were a print reporter, you tried to do a story for the paper you were working for, in the Boston area, about contraception, which was still officially illegal in Massachusetts. Describe what the story was that you wanted to report.

TOTENBERG: Well, I worked on the women's page, the women's page then of the - well, the Record American in Boston, which was the tabloid. The women's page was not like anything you see in any newspaper today. It was basically rewrites of fashion press releases and recipes. And what - and some - and then, there was another section that was weddings. But it was the most boring work imaginable, and I wanted to do other things at the paper.

So I got the idea in my head that I needed to think up a really good story. And because I was in my early 20s, I knew that if I were at any of the flossy women's colleges in Boston, I could have gotten contraceptives. And so I called up every one of them that I could think of - you know, Radcliffe, Simmons, Wellesley, you name it. I think there were a half dozen of them. And in each one, I made an explicit appointment to get contraceptives, which - selling or receive - selling contraceptives in the state of Massachusetts at the time was illegal.

And so I wrote this all up as a proposal, and I brought it to my boss, a very lovely man named Eddie Holland. And I thought he was going to say, go to it, girl. And instead, he came to me, and he asked me to come into his little cubicle. And he said, Nina, I can't have you do this story. And I said, why? And he said, are you a virgin? And I said, yeah. And he said, have you ever had an internal examination? And I said, no. And he said, I just - I cannot let you do this story. And there was - it was obvious there was no arguing with him. I don't know what the reason was. I don't know if he thought that if I went to an OB-GYN to get contraceptives, I might lose my virginity. I don't know if he thought that this was just not suitable for the newspaper. I really don't know. But he said no.

GROSS: What an unusual kind of - what an uncomfortable kind of conversation to have with an editor, asking you if you're a virgin or if you've ever had an internal gynecological exam?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, it's interesting. When I think back on it, I only remember being embarrassed by the question about, are you a virgin? A little. But I thought he was so clearly embarrassed that I don't remember that I thought it was unsuitable for him to ask me these questions. I just thought he got to the wrong place when he said I couldn't do this story. That's what really annoyed me.

GROSS: Well, he should have been embarrassed. It's, like, none of his business.

TOTENBERG: It is none of his business. But it was - you know, it was a long time ago.

GROSS: How concerned are you that contraception will be regulated or even made illegal with this new conservative - supermajority conservative Supreme Court?

TOTENBERG: I think the thing I would say about that is that the greatest threat to contraception for women in this country is probably accessibility, that all kinds of things can be done to make it less accessible and to make certain methods of contraception, which are easier to deal with, like certain IUDs, less accessible and, particularly for people in rural areas where there isn't a giant CVS on the corner, definitely more difficult to obtain.

GROSS: So you think there is likely to be restrictions on the purchase of birth control?

TOTENBERG: Well, think of it this way. You know, the only cases that have come to the court like this, the court has ruled that if you're a pharmacist or providing a public service, you can't discriminate against people based on what they want to have that's legal. But I'm not sure that that will endure with this court.

GROSS: So if you own a chain of drugstores and you feel that contraception violates your political beliefs, you, Nina Totenberg, think that it's very possible that that pharmacist who owns a chain of pharmacies might be able to say, no one in my pharmacies can purchase birth control. We will not sell it.

TOTENBERG: It's possible. I don't know whether it's likely, but it's possible. Or it's possible that individuals will simply refuse to fill prescriptions and make it inaccessible that way. It's - you know, the array of possibilities in the clash between church and state, as it currently exists, is pretty remarkable to behold.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your marriage to Floyd Haskell, your first husband, who served as a Republican in the Colorado State House and then changed to the Democratic Party and served a term as the senator - as a senator from Colorado. He started his term in the U.S. Senate in 1973. You married him in 1979, three years after he and his wife divorced, and stayed married until his death in 1998. He was 26 years older than you, and you were concerned about that when you started the relationship and when you decided to get married. And you write, being married to someone 26 years older had its challenges. Can you talk a little bit about those challenges?

TOTENBERG: Well, the challenge, really, is that he was from a different era. He wanted me home regularly at night. He was very proud of me, and he was very supportive of my professional career. On the other hand, he really would have liked me to be home at 7 o'clock at night, and I couldn't do that all the time. And it would make him angry, you know, not furious, but it was a constant irritant. And then - this has had nothing to do with his age, but oddly enough, he didn't like big parties full of interesting people. He liked small dinners. So if we went to a big party - and I was in heaven because I could find out all kinds of interesting things, and he wanted to leave. And so he famously said, I leave without saying goodbye; she says goodbye without leaving.


GROSS: Like we said, he was 26 years older than you. When he was about 76 - I think that was his age - he fell on the ice and had a subdural hematoma in his brain. So he had to have three surgeries to remove the blood that was leaking into his brain and to make room for his brain's swelling. Your husband lived a few years longer after the fall but in a very compromised state after three surgeries, months in ICUs. He remained very frail. How'd it change your relationship when your husband was no longer the strong, athletic man who you had known and married?

TOTENBERG: Well, he was still Floyd in his inner self. Instead of reading much faster than me, he read more slowly. And sometimes he could get confused. But he was quite determined to keep his self also. He even - because he had very bad balance as a result of the head injury, he couldn't really play tennis. So he needed to have some athletic endeavor. And he didn't much care for swimming, but he knew he could be all right in the water. And he called up a local high school and got a swimming coach. And he paid him to take him swimming, and he would do laps and all kinds of things. And this guy - I'm sorry. I wish I could remember his name. He was just lovely with him. And about twice a week, he would take him to a pool, and Floyd would swim.

He always stayed my protector, you know? He always used to worry when I came home late from work. And he always wanted me to take a cab, and I didn't want to do that 'cause it slows you down. And in those days, it was really hard to get a cab to come late at night. And so I made a deal with him that if I couldn't park just on our block and in front of the house and had to go up and around the corner, I would call him, and he could come watch for me. And there he would be, my frail protector, at, you know, 10 o'clock or 9 o'clock at night, standing in the doorway outside, waiting for me, just to make sure I was all right.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg. Her new book is called "Dinners With Ruth: A Memoir On The Power Of Friendships." And the Ruth in the title is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nina Totenberg, NPR's longtime legal correspondent who has covered the Supreme Court since 1969 and joined NPR in 1975. Her new book "Dinners With Ruth" is about her long friendship with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The book is also a memoir about Nina Totenberg's life.

About a year after your husband died, you met your second husband. And his wife had died about the same time as your husband. When you married, Ruth Bader Ginsburg performed the ceremony. And after it was over, you found out she'd been in the hospital the day before. What was your reaction when you found that out?

TOTENBERG: I felt bad that she had come. I mean, it wasn't something awful. She had a blockage. And this happened to her fairly regularly as a result of all the radiation and some chemo that she had had. And she forbid Marty, her husband, to tell me because she didn't want me to worry that she wouldn't be there. She was there. And then after the dinner, she said to me very quietly - she said, you know, Nina, I was in the hospital last night. Would it be all right if we left a little early? And I sort of went, are you frickin' (ph) kidding me? Go.


GROSS: So your marriage to your second husband was different in several ways, but one of them was he was two years younger than you, as opposed to being 26 years older. What difference did that make?

TOTENBERG: Well, it made a difference in that we had much more - we were the product of the same era, and so it was a lot easier. Also, my first husband, Floyd, was very - you should pardon the expression - waspy. He was angry. You had to infer it. You had to guess. You could see that he wasn't talking much. David Reines - Dr. David Reines, my husband, is just like me. When he gets mad about something, he says, I have a bone to pick with you. I'm really mad that you did X. And then it's over, done.

GROSS: You reprint a letter that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's husband, Marty, wrote when he knew he was dying. And he was in a lot of pain. And would you mind reading an excerpt of that note for us?

TOTENBERG: (Reading) I shall think hard on my remaining health and life and whether on balance the time has come for me to tough it out or take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. And I will not love you one jot less.

GROSS: Did Justice Ginsburg talk to you about her reaction to receiving that letter?

TOTENBERG: Well, she told me about it. So she actually was the person - I would not have known it had she not told me about it. She thought it was a wonderful letter. And understanding her view and his, I did one interview where I asked her to read the letter. And she - I told her ahead of time I was going to do that, but she had forgotten. And it was an interview at the court, but it wasn't in her chambers. And she forgot the letter, so she sent her judicial assistant out to get it. So she was a bit - it's a Yiddish expression - fatutzt because she had forgotten it, God forbid. And so she didn't, I think, do what she normally did, which was sort of put on her armor. And she read the letter. And she started to cry. And Ruth did not cry. She - you know, she choked it back, but it was extraordinary.

GROSS: How did he die? Did he end up hastening his death?

TOTENBERG: No. They told him at Hopkins that there was nothing more they could do for him. And she called David and said, what do I do? And he said, bring him home. Let him die at home. And he did a few days later.

GROSS: And the next day, she went to work and...

TOTENBERG: Yes. She was...

GROSS: ...Assumed her position on the bench.

TOTENBERG: Yes. And she had an opinion for the court to announce. And I think everybody was surprised to see her there. But she said, I did it because Marty would have wanted me to do it. Carry on.

GROSS: When she died, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, refused to let her lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda. And he'd voted to confirm her as a Supreme Court justice. What was your reaction when he refused to let her lie in state there?

TOTENBERG: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi authorized Ruth's casket to lie in state in Statuary Hall instead. And that's the domain of the House of Representatives. So there still was the ceremony. It just was an indication to me of how far we've come in the partisanship of our country at the moment. I mean, McConnell didn't come to the ceremony. No top Republican from either House came. And I just thought it was what my mother would have said, bad manners.

GROSS: Well, Nina Totenberg, it's been great to talk with you. Congratulations on the book. Thank you so much for this interview.

TOTENBERG: Oh, it's my pleasure. You're always a wonderful and thoroughly prepared interviewer.

GROSS: Nina Totenberg is NPR's longtime legal affairs correspondent. Her new memoir is called "Dinners With Ruth." The audiobook edition ends with this recording of Nina's father, violinist Roman Totenberg, performing Paganini's "Caprice No. 24 In A Minor."




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Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

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